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The 1990s as 1950s: Now What?

BY ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
04.14.2000 | POLITICS

The 1990s have been with some justification compared to the 1950s. The 50s had the beats to sulk in the popular imagination; the 90s, slackers. The 50s announced the end of Ideology; the 90s the end of History. Both decades are seen as heralding the triumph of the market and the cementing of consensus. The 1950s claimed the Communist parties of the West as its victims, the 1990s the postwar social democratic traditions of the West. In both decades, the happy Middle, in very different contexts, was coronated.

Looking back, it is clear that the Middle of the 90s was farther to the right than was the Middle of mid-century. Full-employment policies are considered so much second-wave nonsense, and the language of Personal Responsibility and Opportunity has come to replace the vocabulary of Rights that accompanied the social contract of postwar Europe and Great Society USA. If the compromise of the 1950s was reached through providing a strong safety net at home and inflating the Soviet threat abroad, the compromise of the 1990s was less contract than diktat. Rather than a process of negotiation between classes, globalization thus far has been a process forcefully set in motion by elites strategically placed to take advantage of post cold war disorientation. The collapse of state controlled economies at the beginning of the decade proved the disaster of interfering with the market, we were told, and the unregulated market represents not only inevitability, but justice. In the words of Lady Thatcher, There Is No Alternative, and so conservative forces set about creating a world system in which none is viable. In case any doubts lingered, State Department philosophers were ready with bestsellers cleverly proving that we had reached an eschatological endgame. The human drama closes with the Democratic Leadership Council, and it is futile to hope for anything better. Similar to in the 1950s, it was declared that the age of hopes and dreams is over. Only this time the "hopes and dreams" weren't those of a Marxist utopia, but rather the humble hope that one would have a secure job at a good wage with decent benefits. Such a hope was no longer realistic, and the pampered children who had benefited from the largesse of the capitalist state during the Boom had better tighten their belts for the wild ride that is the global economy. Like the in1950s, new boundaries of acceptable political debate were set. And set way to the right.

The new Panglosses at the Economist et. al., however, would rather not remember the decade that followed the 1950s. It is thus the job of their contingency theorists at the RAND Corporation to remind them that although the 60s ultimately swallowed The Great Refusal whole, there were some scary moments during the decade that peaked with the mounting of machine guns on the White House lawn in 1968. In fact, an important segment of the population ditched happy patriotism for various shades of radicalism in the years book ended by Castro's success and McGovern's failure. One Nation Under God died in the streets of Newark, Chicago and Saigon, never to return, assuming it ever existed. Capitalism emerged strong, but several pillars of the foundation were shaken, the Establishment's will bruised. It is an experience that those with the most to lose would rather not have again.

The 00s as the 60s? Comparing the 50s to the 90s is superficial, of course, and it is indeed a messy fit. The 90s were actually a combination of the 50s and the 60s. Riots and wars occurred alongside widespread if uneven prosperity and apathy; pockets of activism flourished amidst the consolidation of a new conservative orthodoxy. But the 90s resembled the 50s more than the 60s insofar as there emerged nothing approaching a mass movement challenging the status quo. Environmentalists rallied in forests and lobbied on Capitol Hill; human rights activists marched against the sanctions against Iraq; a startlingly effective coalition of groups called for Third World debt relief; labor retrenched to begin fighting a bitter rear guard battle. But these movements were disparate, the Left itself adrift as commonalities between groups seemed few and strained by identity and divergent "interests." Then Seattle happened.

In the streets of a sleepy port town these groups announced that during the past decade, a system had been put in place. This system bummed out a wide variety of people: greens saw the earth raped at an accelerating pace, labor saw their power eroded drastically, and citizens of all stripes—from hardened human rights activists to the sensitive soccer mom—were alarmed at the shadow greed was casting over the globe. Moreover, the setbacks of the conservative onslaught demonstrated their need for alliances, and thus a marriage of convenience and necessity was born. Whether it will last—or even if there is anything to it—is uncertain, but on it depends the success of the new democratic challenge.

Watching the thousands that gathered in Washington this April, it is hard not to think that this is the beginning of an upward curve of activism, to risk an understatement. As the culture as a whole becomes ever more dominated by commercial values, the resistance is appearing to stiffen and grow. This resistance is not united by adherence to a common positive platform. There is no agreed upon manifesto (yet), and too many groups trying to organize for any of them to become a flagship organization soon. The future will decide what is to become of this powerful reaction to the ascendance of unrestrained global capitalism. Maybe its negative nature will stunt its growth and limit it to the perennial sidelines, or maybe it will flower into a legitimate movement replete with the dominant values of tomorrow and the political vehicles needed to enshrine them in the institutional cement of power. Will it transcend class, race and nation? Does humane, rational revolutionary potential exist in the world at the dawn of a new century? Most of those who remember the last exertion of radical will are hesitant to say so. And yet, if you listen very carefully, it is hard not to hear the 1960 voice of C. Wright Mills from beyond the grave: 'Let the old women complain wisely about the "end of ideology." We are beginning to move again.'

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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